Glaciers are much more than just ice blocks

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A glacier is a large, perennial accumulation of crystalline ice, snow, rock, sediment, and often liquid water that originates on land and moves down slope under the influence of its own weight and gravity.

When a climber falls into a crevasse, a deep fracture in the ice, the frozen corpse will flow through the glacier and be ejected from its foot several decades later. This gruesome process, known as corpse transfer, was one of the earliest clues that glaciers aren’t simply solid blocks of ice.

Climate change is also turning up bodies — like the infamous Otzi the Iceman — and more as glaciers melt away. Over the past decade, researchers in Norway have recovered dozens of ancient items in a previously frozen mountain pass, including a complete Iron Age Roman tunic.

Glaciers provide data on past climate conditions, as well. When annual snowfall solidifies into glacial ice, air bubbles trap atmospheric gases and airborne particles ranging from pollen to soot. Scientists then drill into the ice and extract layered cylindrical cores for study.

But they’d better act fast, before global warming melts away these memories. For instance, the amount of ice flowing from Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier has doubled over the past three decades.

Such melting has the potential to expose pathogenic viruses trapped in the ice, some of which haven’t been in circulation for more than 10,000 years. Paired with warming waters, melting glaciers also threaten to flood cities with a projected sea level rise of 1 to 3 feet by the year 2100.

Some algae get their drinking water by deliberately melting glaciers, producing dark pigments that absorb enough sunlight to thaw their frozen habitat. But they’re too good at it for their own good — large blooms along the edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet are increasing its summer melt rate by 10 per cent.


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